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Optics: Perception Becomes Reality

These days everybody wants to be perceived as a “thought leader” and “focused on strategy.” That’s a reasonable and legitimate goal. But strategy must be complemented by subject matter expertise, and too generalized of a strategy is frequently where our most painful productivity issues originate. Sooner or later, somebody has to roll up their sleeves, become the specialist, or take responsibility for coordinating a team’s collective thoughts into a coherent game plan. It’s no surprise that most generalists begin their careers as specialists.

It’s the substantive work that ultimately refines your capabilities and gives you the insight to lead big projects and teams. I’ll leave the specific number of hours required for expertise to Malcolm Gladwell. But the truth remains that the only way you gain experience is by taking on the dirty work and assuming ownership over both success and failure. What matters to management as much as the outcome is how you are perceived while responding to those challenges and how you carry yourself through the ups and downs. How you handle the blows matters more than how you take the bows.

We’re all aware that certain projects, those in which repetitive, mundane, administrative, or technical work is required, are avoided like the plague by line employees and management alike. It’s not as exciting as “What should we do next with this ridiculous budget or patented technology?!” When a project does happen to spark immediate interest and quickly garner executive support, once it moves past the planning stages, it too can begin to feel like nobody on the team wants to be bothered with the specific logistics. It ends up either a shell of itself, on the chopping block, or just the back burner. This is especially true in larger organizations where the majority of stakeholders are not incentivized to profit from the idea or initiative’s success directly.

Surprisingly, what can blossom from these hellish projects are new, bold leaders, since these are also opportunities for individuals willing to board the ship and chart the obstacle course. These are the champions in life and work who drive initiatives forward because they’re more interested in accomplishing something and learning new skills than getting (or stealing) the credit. They are playing a long game, and that’s how they outwit those who would short their own stock. Of course, we all know individuals who have been elevated by less ethical means and have gone on to lead companies, even governments! But there is no long-term professional value for lifetime purveyors of immediate gratification.

Modern knowledge workers expect to graduate into advanced roles and focus increasingly on delegation. Yet a strictly hands-off attitude ultimately results in us easily falling out of touch with basic business operations, over time making us seem unrelatable and aloof to our co-workers and customers. We naively assume technology or corporate bureaucracy will shoulder all the tedious processes we’re tasked with rather than striving to understand its impact on our businesses and identifying room for further efficiency.

Masses of employees, especially those basking in the spend-it-or-lose-it public sector, have grown comfortable with management throwing money at a problem or bringing in consultants to clean up a mess instead of tackling causation. As leaders and executives, we never want to take a step backward and be viewed as unwilling to trust and delegate. Yet there is much to be said for staying familiar with, remaining involved in, and practicing the discipline in which you claim to have expertise.

In this Information Age, we need to stay current with the problems our industry is facing, intimately, so that our ideas remain fresh, so we can retool and modernize the principles that have worked for us. Those principles and optics help get our teams to score on goal posts that always seem to be movin

Let me know what you think!

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